The tabloid infamy of Tonya Harding was just begging to be made into a movie. Here’s the story of a young woman raised in poverty in Portland, Oregon who worked her way up against all odds to become one of the world’s best figure skaters only to have her dreams dashed by a scandal when her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and her “bodyguard” Shawn Eckhardt paid a couple of halfwit criminals to assault her competitive rival Nancy Kerrigan ahead of the 1994 Olympics. That story has finally found its way to the big screen in director Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which wants to present this wild story with the kind of cinematic verve that Martin Scorsese brought to his legendary film Goodfellas. All the attempts to liven up this tabloid tale results in a film that suffers from some serious tonal issues that dilute the themes that Gillespie is trying to pull from Harding’s tragically trashy story.
The screenplay by Steven Rogers has plenty of moments that break the fourth wall including the opening of the film which takes place as if Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) are giving interviews for a documentary that is taking place years after the infamous events in 1994. Also interjecting into the narrative to explain their involvement in the story are Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and a producer from the defunct television tabloid Hard Copy (Bobby Cannavale). All of these characters give their side of the story, sometimes providing contradictory details that explain how Tonya Harding became an unlikely figure skating champion and eventual tabloid cover girl.
We’re witness to a chain-smoking, boozing LaVona take a young Tonya to the ice rink where she badgers figure skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) into taking Tonya on as a student even though she’s younger than Diane’s typical student. LaVana is a cruel woman, using ruthless verbal barbs to berate her daughter into peak performance. In a prime example of how I, Tonya struggles with tone, the cruelty of LaVona is often played for laughs in a strikingly tone deaf display of attempted humor. This dark streak of would-be comedy is made all the worse by the fact that years and years of abusive behavior from her mother would lead Tonya into a destructive relationship with another abuser in Jeff Gillooly.
Gillooly and Harding met as teenagers, and the film has both Robbie and Stan playing unconvincing teenager versions of their characters complete with Robbie donning a set of braces. Their youthful romance blossoms but the mustachioed Gillooly has a brutal streak of his own lingering under the surface, bubbling over into physical violence onto Tonya. As Tonya describes within the narration, the abusive relationship with her mother convinced her that she was the issue in both abusive relationships, making the attempts to use the deleterious maternal relationship for laughs even more disgusting. Gillespie even uses Gilooly’s loathsome domestic violence for shock instead of horror. Then using the film’s mockumentary narrative structure, Gillespie will create a dynamic of he said/she said that is meant to question the nature of truth but in fact gives an air of doubt that only benefits the abuser.
As Tonya climbs the ladder of the figure skating world, she encounters resistance from the sport’s governing bodies. She’s one hell of a skater but her crude demeanor and inelegant attire forces the judges to look down upon her. That’s where the conspiracy to harm Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) comes into play. A death threat is called in to Tonya before a competition. Convinced it was called in by Nancy Kerrigan, Jeff Gillooly along with his overweight and bumbling friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) conceive a plan to send threats to where she practices, enlisting the help of Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) and Derrick Smith (Anthony Reynolds). Of course, Shane Stant attacks Kerrigan, striking her in the knee, and the attack set off a media frenzy as well as an FBI investigation.
Hard as Craig Gillespie tries – and believe me he really goes for it – to make I, Tonya into the Goodfellas of figure staking, he’s just incapable of finding the right tone for these situations throughout the film. Here’s a story that’s about the tragic cycle of abuse and Gillespie and company try to mine the constant abuse and degradation of Tonya Harding for cheap laughs, as if the cycle of abuse is comical as long the participants are dumb white trash. The camera constantly zooms and moves in a manner similar to Scorsese’s with a number of needle drops that further draw the comparisons to legendary filmmaker. (Seriously, no movie needs “Spirit in the Sky” ever again.) The variety of topics that the film wants to hit – the cycle of abuse, matters of class, and media frenzies – are all rather haphazardly shoehorned into what is mainly attempting to be a black comedy with tonal inconsistencies that make it very difficult to laugh.
It is a shame that such a phenomenal performance from Margot Robbie is trapped in a film that doesn’t quite know what do with her. She brings the intensity of a competitor and the vulnerability of a victim to her portrayal of Harding that it’s incredibly unfortunate that her character getting punched is often used a punchline. Robbie also isn’t helped by some of the unfortunate CGI employed to place her face on the body of her figure skating double, something so poorly done that it’s distracting and could’ve easily had been avoided with a little bit of deft editing. Though her character is employed in a bewildering manner, Allison Janney does deliver some solid work as the loathsome matriarch of the Harding family. Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan’s performance left rather cold and I think that’s another instance of the film’s tonal issues, uncertain whether to portray him as bumbling fool or a cruel, abusive husband so the film just opts for the all-of-the-above option. (Between this and The Bronze, beware of any movie involving Sebastian Stan and white trash Olympians.)
I, Tonya, in many regards, is a lot like American Hustle in that it aims to use a kinetic style and recognizable music in the mold of Scorsese without the depth behind the flashy imagery and outdated style. Craig Gillespie’s film has energy to spare but it can’t focus that energy on the multitude of topics that it wants to tackle. (One particular instance towards the end tries to make the case that the Harding scandal faded from the public consciousness because of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, a preposterous notion.) I, Tonya is a movie with lots of flash as it twirls around the ice. Too bad it can’t stick any one of the landings.
Presented in a style much like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya has plenty of style and a fantastic performance from Margot Robbie but struggles mightily with tone, often imploring the audience to laugh at abusive behavior.